Digital Strategy No 3: Thinking exponentially about what your customers want

April 2016

How often do people in your company ask what it is that customers want? As opposed to what they want. How often do you have meetings to discuss what is good for your company, or your department, or your team, as opposed to what is good for your customers? Pretty often I imagine; it is so easy, and we all do it, to let focus shift to our own interests as the lens through which we view our business. We should though, and I think we all know this as well, look at our businesses through the lens of our customers. Once beyond start up stage it is so easy to slip from this mindset, but as Steve Blank has said “No Business Plan Survives First Contact With A Customer”, and this applies on an ongoing basis. Don’t keep up with your customers desires and the only way is down.

Customers needs and desires change over time, often because technology changes. For example satellite phone company Iridium spent $5.2 billion building a global network to support their specialist phones, only to find that by the time they had done this the real customer demand that existed at start up had disappeared as cell based mobile phones had rendered the need for satellite phones almost entirely redundant. People love to take photos, and digital trashed the film industry, but digital cameras were in turn trashed by the incorporation of cameras into smartphones. The best camera is the one you have with you, and everyone has a smartphone.

So it is clear that whilst looking through your customers eyes is vital, it must be done with a view to how technology is advancing, and how new capabilities might alter the landscape. Now, as Nassim Taleb has written, there are Black Swans out there, events so unexpected and so pervasive in influence that nothing is quite the same again. These though are, by definition rare, and whilst you cannot plan for them, you can plan for most ‘disruption’ coming your way. For each industry there are certain technologies we can see coming down the tracks, and in most cases it is only a matter of timing as to when the major impact will manifest itself.

Furthermore, in line with the 50 year old Moore’s Law (where processing power for a particular cost doubles every two years) many of these technologies are developing at an exponential rate. Which loosely means their development will graph to look like a hockey stick. Not a lot happens for ages, and then the upswing takes off rapidly. A lily pond completely covered in 48 days, takes 47 days to get half way there. You get the picture.

Here are 6 technologies developing exponentially:

1) 3D Printing; bigger printers (houses), smaller printers (nano-scale), available materials (including food!). When the Space Station uses 3D printing when they need a particular type of wrench, you start to see the potential. Mass customisation, manufacturing on-demand (no warehouses), repatriation of manufacturing facilities to developed countries.

2) Drones. Ever more intelligent (Google ‘fencing drone’) and dropping in price, expect to see delivery by drone (construction sites?), as well as ubiquity for site inspections (see Apple Spaceship), restricted space photography, marketing videos, 3d mapping, thermal imagery, aerial photography

3) Lidar. The technology instrumental in enabling autonomous cars is crashing in cost and the impact of this fast growing industry (every major car brand is spending billions in this field) will be huge. Imagine city centres with only self driving cars; how we all use space could change dramatically.

4) Industrial robots. Becoming more intelligent, bigger, smaller and less expensive. Hadrian is a robotic brick layer which can build a domestic size house in two days. Automating construction has to be a major growth area.

5) 5g over 4g. The Japanese are aiming to have 5g available in 2018 for the Winter Olympics but 2020 is probably when we will see this technology start to roll out. With broadband speeds in the multi gigabit range 5g will be enormously disruptive. The virtual office will truly be enabled as we will be able to video (perhaps even Avatar using iterations of Microsoft Hololens) chat with multiple people in realtime, at scale, in high definition and with no lag in connectivity. Will the office really be dead this time around?

6) Smartphones/AI. The iPhone is 8 years old this year and the current version is as powerful as a 1990 supercomputer. Moreover, because of increasing bandwidth each of us is effectively plugged in to the vast computational power of data centres run by the likes of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook. Couple this with the dramatic rise of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the range of contextually aware, real time data and information that is becoming available to us is quite staggering. It is clear that each of us will become hooked on having available just that piece of information we need whenever and wherever we need it.

Here then is the future, or at least a good chunk of it. Each of the above technologies are either with us already, and becoming faster/better/cheaper or will be within a few years. Going back to ‘what does our customer want’ how then do we leverage the tools at our disposal?

Break everything down to touchpoints; when, where and how does your customer (and partners or suppliers) interact with your business? Could these touchpoints work better? If you were your own customer what do you think you would want in terms of how you are serviced? Can your customers get anything they need from you, on demand? How hard is it to give you money? How hard is it to get support, or information?

Do your customers want to hear from you more. Or less. And in what format? What is convenient for them?

Think of these touchpoints, these interactions. List them out. Then try and digitise them. Does that improve them?

And where’s the value? How can you provide the most value?

When you break your own skills down into their component parts, and then think of them in connection with the technology available to us now or in the near future, different patterns will almost certainly develop to the way your business runs today. Maybe your investment strategies will change to take account of how you now envisage demand will change. Perhaps you will realise that you have valuable knowledge that was historically too difficult to monetise but that you could today with an online, on-demand platform. Or maybe you can see how you could provide more support to your customers, in real time and at scale, without upping your costs in doing so.

It’s all really a case of stepping back, seeing the overall landscape, developing a sense of situational awareness of where your business stands within your industry or profession, and then zooming in to each product or service you provide and seeing how you can utilise technology to give your customer more of what they really want, as opposed to what they accept today.

And before you say ‘all very well, but we are in a people business’ that is exactly the point. It is by combining the capabilities of modern technology with the empathy, design, intuition and imagination of humans that great businesses are going to be built.

Don’t forget, humanity is the killer app in the digital age.